On January 13, in the Indian Ocean, U.S. and French aircraft carriers exchanged fighter jets in a coordinated exercise symbolic of the recent deepening of the Franco-American defense and security relationship. As embattled French president François Hollande prepares for his state visit to Washington next week, defense cooperation is sure to be a bright spot on the agenda—especially when it comes to emerging security challenges in Africa.
This is good for everyone. It can help defend our many common interests, save money and strengthen transatlantic relations. But both sides will need to show flexibility and be willing to adapt if deeper cooperation is going to pay off.
U.S.-French relations on defense issues have been complicated since the 1960s, when President de Gaulle distanced France from the United States by developing an independent nuclear capability and then withdrawing from NATO’s integrated military-command structures (although France did not pull out of NATO altogether). Tensions flared again a decade ago during the 2003 Iraq War, when France refused to support the war. A cacophony of populist recrimination on both sides of the Atlantic followed.
But the days of “freedom fries” and pouring Bordeaux into the gutter are over. In the last few years, France and the United States have embarked anew on a broad range of defense cooperation projects that are drawing their militaries closer together than ever before.
This recent rapprochement has roots in perilous Eastern Afghanistan, where President Nicolas Sarkozy sent French special-operations forces to fight under U.S. command in 2008. Even though the French withdrew their forces early and never committed as heavily as the British, France’s willingness to take serious risks and their ability to work effectively under U.S. command boosted their standing in U.S. military circles.
In 2011, U.S.-French military relations were further strengthened by NATO’s intervention in Libya. Although France initially objected to using NATO, once operations were under way, French airpower—coupled with French special-operations forces on the ground—played a key role in helping Libya’s rebels overthrow the Qaddafi regime.
Again, in 2013, the French launched a rapid-reaction operation that chased al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb out of Mali, demonstrating they were serious about fighting terrorists in Africa—and they had some real muscle for the fight. The United States loaned the French key intelligence and logistical capabilities in Mali—as it had in Libya and has recently done in support of the French operation to put a lid on the burgeoning ethnic tensions in the Central African Republic.
Equally, if not more significant, are the deepening ties between French and U.S. special-operations forces. France has a long tradition of special operations and has increasingly sought to partner with the United States in this key area. Recognizing the potential advantages, the head of U.S. special operations, Admiral William McRaven, has invested in building a mutually beneficial relationship with the French. France has meanwhile bought new technologies that should make it easier for its intelligence services to collaborate with the United States.
A number of factors are driving this surge of Franco-American cooperation. The French are frustrated with Germany's perpetual reluctance to shoulder a bigger share of Europe’s defense burdens.
They’re also frustrated with the decline in Franco-British defense cooperation. Only a few years ago, France and Britain’s efforts to strengthen their military cooperation was viewed as one of the most promising and dynamic developments in Europe. But deep budget cuts in Britain, Britain’s troubled relationship with the European Union, and most of all the fact that the British military is exhausted after the toil of Iraq and Afghanistan, have slowed the Franco-British initiative down severely.
Common concern about security challenges in Africa have also pushed the French closer to the United States. The crisis in North Africa, where the Arab Spring has unleashed jihadist groups and other woes, is a clear problem area for both countries. As the former leading colonial power in North and West Africa, France aspires to a special role in helping the states of the region bring these problems under control. These are also problems that are right in its backyard.
Given the burdens it carries elsewhere in the world, its shifting focus toward Asian security matters, and a public exhausted with military intervention for the time being, the United States should welcome France’s willingness to use its military to fight al Qaeda and stabilize fractious states like Mali and to deal with the crisis in Central African Republic.
But France cannot take on these challenges alone.
Despite its aspirations and recent operations, France faces real economic and financial difficulties that will diminish its ability to project force in the future. Unless it finds more resources, the current pace of operations could soon leave them as worn out as the British.
U.S. political and military support thus need to continue. The United States has wisely supported French initiatives in Africa, not only in special operations, but also by providing transport and refueling aircraft and intelligence.
Figuring out how the U.S. military can plug into an allied operation, however, has taken some work. The U.S. military has lots of experience with other countries plugging into its operations, but it much less accustomed to the reverse. In Mali, for example, legal questions delayed the arrival of U.S. aircraft to support France’s attacks on Al Qaeda.
The European Union also needs to do much more to support French efforts in Africa, financially and by meeting its own commitments to deploy the long-stalled European Union battle groups. If it fails to do so, the future of the EU’s longstanding military aspirations is not bright.
How long the current push for closer U.S.-French cooperation will continue remains to be seen. Old French allergies to NATO, which is central in Washington’s view of European security, could still derail it, just as further budget cuts might. In the meantime, however, the United States and France must continue to press ahead. In a world of declining resources and public support on both sides of the Atlantic, greater allied defense cooperation—wherever possible—is much to be desired.
Christopher S. Chivvis is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank. He is the author of Toppling Qaddafi, and teaches European Security at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Follow him on Twitter: @cchivvis.